Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Perfect Little Black Notebook: My Custom Design that Ended the Quest

Chuck sent me this email about how he custom designed his own perfect notebook, and he agreed to let me post it on Pocket Blonde. The time and dedication spent in creating this beautiful leather flip top notebook holder and notebooks made me feel both awed and envious. Enjoy the post, as I did.

Notebooks, for me, mean a lot of different things. As a kid, I think I was attracted to them for organizational reasons as well as convenience. Not that I could articulate it, but turning in homework and taking notes always seemed a little silly on huge sheets of paper. I often don't jot down much about what I need to recall, but the amount I do take down really always seemed to be better organized on smaller sheets. Then there's the convenience factor of not having 8 x 10 sheets that have to go in binders or bags.

My basic model is that the easier it is to take notes, the more likely you are to take good notes. Also, if you know that writing important things down once will allow you easy access to that information for the future, it “boosts” the incentive to write it down in the first place. The ability for the notebook to blend into your wardrobe so that you don’t have to hold it when you need your hands free, or are always leaving it on your desk or in your car, is critical. Taking notes should almost appear seamless, or least not a huge distraction. So to sum up convenience, it’s got to small and light enough to carry, but large enough to allow for room to have some form of organization and of course should include the all important writing implement.

Then there’s archiving. What good are notes you can’t locate? That’s where the Moleskines stumped me. I get that if you’re going to Greece and you want to scrapbook your experience, they may work well and look very elegant and sophisticated in the coffee shop or on your bookshelf. What, however, of the day to day? Projects, lists, phone numbers, addresses--all of these things have multiple recall uses.

Sometimes, I take down information that I don’t even know I’ll need later, but I’ve still got it. That’s where my note taking mantra really shines. Without inserts though, that display date ranges and important note content, I’d never be able to recall seemingly random records. The beauty of my little system is that my book looks every bit as elegant as the Moleskines, except I can remove and label the inserts and I fill them up. This allows my books a great deal of flexibility. I imagine that with Moleskines, you might hesitate to put “off topic” issues on your pages. That recipe or cute boys’ phone number would be difficult to locate on a random page of a book you used for journaling or traveling, and have now closed out.

There’s also the sexy factor. Growing up with a passion for the New York original Law & Order, the power and influence of the notebook was unmistakable. All cop dramas and news/media shows draw from the image of the concerned and altruistic investigator cobbling together seemingly random bits of information held together by little more than the spiral bindings their notebooks.

Notebooks show that you’re both caring and responsible. They indicate that you are prepared to personalize the concerns of others and have a real shot and getting the details of certain situation right. The ubiquitous “loose cannon” detective with his big gun and leather jacket, always scribbling notes in his notebook… or brashly flipping it open (always to the correct page) to prove the accuracy of something he’s talking about. This is another reason I wanted something in leather and w/ a pen loop. With a bit of practice, I could whip out the book, the pen and start writing all in one smooth motion; sitting, standing, walking, whatever.

So those are some of my visualizations. In reality, I’ve bumped around careers in journalism (early on) and real estate. Good notes, of course, are key to success in either field. My notebook makes conducting background checks in the court house a pretty cool endeavor. Investigating target properties, tracking their ownership through the recorder of deeds… these are all perfect notebook applications. In this capacity, the books are like a clearing house that stores all the bad or useless info, until you find what you’re looking for and proceed to the next phase of the project.

I guess the last thing I’ll talk about are the various blogs. Firstly, they help you feel like you’re not the freak you think you might be when you realize you’re not alone. You’ll notice I haven’t really touched on pens or paper quality, cause for me those things don’t matter as much. A smooth writing, well weighted pen isn’t lost on me, but nibs and inks are probably a little far afield. The importance of keeping the book though… well let’s just say we’re all on the same page with that one. I feel that it’s interesting that I still desire to share with people though, because I’ve found what I consider a near perfect solution to my notebook woes. I realize that an inherent issue with blogging is that it does little good to discuss items that people can’t readily go purchase at a store. I spent years researching the notebook that I designed, though you’d never know it by looking at it, and I want to share my insights, but in truth, it would be prohibitively expensive and impractical for people to do what I did. I think this is what you wanted to talk about.

I designed this book because no other notebook combines size, convenience and style in the way that I needed. I began by designing the leather cover. This cover had to be small enough to fit in the back pocket of jeans and the inside pocket of jackets, but large enough to hold a book capable of organizing concepts and information that may not be collected “linearly” (often when you talk to people, they make errors or omissions in what they say, and I’ve learned that you need to leave space by skipping lines, so that you can include what they left out at a later time). The cover was also to have a pen loop and receipt flap, but those were easier to add and came only after we new the size of the cover was exactly right.

So I went to a leather guy. I’ll admit creating the notebook wasn’t his favorite activity. He did, however, really help me pick out the best leather, and show me the mechanics of putting it together. The case is two very thin, rectangular pieces of leather stitched back to back, and then simply folded in the middle to create the flip. The first time we tried it, the measurements were too big and it didn’t really fit in the jeans so well. He was nice enough to cut the cover down again, and it fit perfect with just enough sticking out of the pocket to grab it easily. The stitching looks like real craftsman’s quality, and the leather itself just gets softer with use. It’s pretty amazing. Other than that, we added two strips on the inside of the back of the book to hold the cardboard flaps of the not yet created inserts, and added the pen loop (just a strip of elastic in a loop) and a thin piece of leather on the top flap to hold receipts and loose paper.

The only challenge after that was locating a company that could produce inserts exactly the right size (3 7/16" by 6") to fit the cover. I found such a company in Florida, that could generate a spiral bound flip top notebook exactly in bulk. They did send a mock up for free, without which I’m not sure I could have committed the $400 they eventually wanted for the whole job. The mock up obviously let me see how the book would fit and feel in its case. How big the spirals would be, how much of an overhang the edge of the cover would have over the insert, questions I needed to answer before committing a ton of money. I did have minor adjustments such as the number of pages per book, and I was happier with this one and felt prepared to proceed.

The next step was the graphics of the book. Lucky for me I was looking for something very simple here--just a title line on the top with date slashes, and as many smaller lines as could fit on the page. The front covers of the inserts are similar, but they include a box for the volume number, date range and about ten lines for key topics that the insert will be filled with. The tough part was paying the $400 for the bulk amount, but by my calculations, I’m good on notebooks for 8 years now and that’s a lot better than 8 years worth of Moleskines I couldn’t use. So I bit the bullet and a VCR-sized box arrived a short time later with 100 books that were pretty perfect.

All told, after years of research and complaining about other notebooks, plus $50 to the leather guy (and buying a few of his wears) $400 for the books and I’m a happy camper. Convincing yourself that it’s worth the time before you do it--that was the toughest part.


  1. Great job, great write-up, Chuck! Jack/Youngstown

  2. One question, Chuck: can you mention the Florida printer and the leather goods guy? I'm not in the market for custom work, but other readers may be.

    With a whole lot of jingle, I'd probably see a mechanical designer and fabricating shop that'd put together a custom aluminum (or magnesium) padfolio that held the panels together with something better than a piano hinge.

    Here's my comment on my idea of the perfect pocket notebook, originally posted on Penchant for Paper:

    "Heather, I'm in my 50s, a semi-retired tech writer and ad salesman, and I'm still looking for the perfect pocket notebook. By "pocket", I mean the pocket of a summer-weight shirt, and I want room for a few pens, mechanical pencils, stick erasers, and so on.

    I came close. There used to be something called the Wilson Buddy Jr. A thin, flexible, tough, faux croc notebook cover for moisture- and dirt-resistance. By "tough", I mean the plastic resisted splitting and discoloration even after abuse. Maybe around 3" X 5" or very slightly smaller w/ rounded corners that avoided dog-earing. The notebook insert was a stapled pad of around 28-32 perforated leaves for thinness, either ruled or plain. I've yet to find a good replacement, although the Rhodia and Alvin pads I've been using are pretty good, and their just-under-3" X 5" dimensions make for good pocketability. Moleskine has something around 2 1/2" X 4" (Volant?) that I've been experimenting with.

    I don't need a lot of paper in a pocket notebook. Enough to jot down a few hurriedly thought-up ideas, or a list, or a message." Jack/Youngstown

  3. Do you tear off the pages as you make notes? All the pics show top page only, I've been using the Mead Cambridge 3X5 top wire bound for general notes, which is too fragile to keep in my back pocket and sit down. It's pretty serviceable otherwise.Eric

  4. it really interest me...i love this site...maybe i could make it some of my reference...thanks for showing it to me...

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  5. Eric,
    No,I don't tear off the pages. Tearing out pages makes for an archiving nightmare, unless you're committed to reassembling and labeling them later... every month. With 3 x 5's it shouldn't be costly to get a leather folding case. As I said my entry, the only reason I didn't do this myself, was because the 3 x 5's simply weren't big enough. Just as a practical matter though, I'd just try not to sit on them as much. My notebook fits in my jeans pocket, but its a little heavy. During our famous Chicago winters, its not bad, cause you might tuck in your shirt, or wear heavier jackets or coats. In the summer, my notebook might occasionally shed its leather cover and make an appearance "in the nude" which is just as light as a 3 x 5.

  6. Chuck posted a link to this article on my blog as he'd somehow stumbled onto the quest, and series of disappointments, for my own 'perfect notebook'.

    And while I had toyed with the idea of creating my own for some time, I never did anything about it.

    Not any more!

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